It’s strange to see a writer as talented and self-aware as Martin Amis with so little understanding of where his talent should be taking him. His memoir, 2000’s Experience, is the watershed title in his career. In the books that came before, including the unassailable classics Money and London Fields (I would also include Dead Babies, The Information and Time’s Arrow), Amis allied a moralist’s sensibility with a prose style of fervid and infectious originality, gleefully excoriating the worst excesses of his culture. Experience though was the refutation of Amis’ long-stressed aesthetic opinion that style itself was morality, and that style alone was enough to sustain a book: as if the depth of your engagement with the surface of things demonstrated the seriousness with which you looked at the world. The memoir showed a surprising (because so unexpected) tenderness, an emotional core that had previously been absent from his work. This is not to say that the earlier books lacked anything – where would emotion and human tenderness have fitted in a scabrous satire like Money? – but it was a welcome development. Experience seemed to point out the direction in which late-period Amis was heading, and it looked fascinating.
It’s because of this that Yellow Dog was so unsatisfying; if he had published it ten years earlier it would have passed without a murmur of dissent. In the context of his memoir though, it looked like a wholly retrograde step. And it’s from this delayed, frustrated sense of missed opportunity that every book Amis has published since is interrogated to see if it’s the elusive ‘return to form’ that it promises to be. It never is, of course, because the ‘return to form’ should be to the form of Experience, not Money.
There are signs that Amis is very slowly beginning to work this out. The Pregnant Widow was a marvellous book precisely because he was balancing the reliable vigour of his prose with the weight of a hard-earned forebearance and human understanding. Amis’s new novel Lionel Asbo, as the title might suggest, does not take this development any further, although it’s not quite the Yellow Dog-style regression you might expect. It’s a minor entry in the oeuvre, and the premise doesn’t quite justify the 276 pages he spends on it, but this is still one of the funniest books published so far this year, and in places contains some of Amis’ best writing on the Dickensian, riotous cityscape that is his exaggerated conception of London (‘the great world city’). In terms of plot, Lionel is a violent thug living in the dystopic London borough of Diston whose life is changed by winning £140 million on the Lottery. Living up to every underclass stereotype, he blows through the money at a staggering rate in a riot of bad behaviour. At the same time, his sensitive, intelligent nephew Desmond lives in terror that Lionel will discover his secret; that for a few months he ‘enjoyed’ a sexual relationship with his own grandmother, Lionel’s mum Grace. The plot is perfunctory, but it does allow a certain forward momentum, and injects real tension into the later scenes. Additionally, with the character of Desmond, Amis is able to focus the same emotional attention he demonstrated so effectively in The Pregnant Widow. Desmond is in many ways the core of the novel, and his development from gawky, scared teenager living in mordant fear of his violent uncle to a confident young man with a family and a decent job is very well handled. It’s his intellectual journey, running in parallel (and, as Amis suggests, one is very much responsible for the other) that seems most convincing. “ […] he communed with the whispers of his intelligence. Did everybody have one, an inner voice? An inner voice that was cleverer than they were?” I can’t think of a better description of burgeoning creative imagination than that. It’s a faculty that’s not absent from Lionel either; as Desmond speculates, you’d have to put a lot of thought into being as stupid as he is, and in the aftermath of Asbo’s grotesquely large lottery win, there are signs that the freedom of money is giving him the space to develop his own inner voice, to commune with the whispers of his own dormant intelligence.
Amis has stressed that this novel should be seen as a modern fairy tale – the life-changing, life-inverting sum of money gifted from nowhere; the ‘citadel’ of the Avalon Towers high-rise where Demond and Lionel live (and it’s no accident that name is so resonant); Lionel’s brutal pit-bulls like circling wolves … The fairy tale aspect excuses a general lack of depth, but in many ways what Amis needs to move away from are his earlier attempts to manufacture depth. The apocalyptic weather systems in London Fields, the cosmological nightmares of The Information and Night Train, even the background of the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow, are all the least interesting parts of those otherwise excellent novels. In Lionel Asbo, Amis is trusting more in those previously scorned aspects of the novel – character and plot. It may not be as essential as his earlier, more urgent works, and does not capitalise on the great leap forward of The Pregnant Widow, but Lionel Asbo is still a playful and engaging work, and worth far more than, say, Julian Barnes’ overrated Booker Prize winner The Sense of an Ending. It’s worth reading for the scene with the lobster alone.
(Thanks to Chloe and Kate at Random House for the review copy)